Bread Baking — My Drug of Choice

Last night I came home from yet another grueling week at the office, mentally spent and anxious to forget the week that was. As is my habit, I bee-lined for the fridge to pop a cold brew (a Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale followed by a Founder’s Porter, in case you were wondering). As helpful as a good beer may be to demarcate the end of the work day, though, it cannot drain the stress from my weary brain and begin the much-needed process of mental restoration quite the same way that bread baking can do. I started teaching myself from books how to make bread a few years ago, and it may well be the most relaxing and rewarding activity I have found, with the possible exception of scuba diving.

Just to be clear, as I was downing my artfully crafted suds I did not immediately whip together some loaves and pop them into the oven. No, the process is a bit slower and more complicated than that. Well, maybe “complicated” isn’t the right word. There’s nothing especially complex about making good bread – it’s just a process that has certain rules and steps to work through, just like anything else in life that is worth pursuing to a defined goal. So on Friday evenings I like to get that started to remind myself that, yes indeed, the weekend truly is here.

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The process begins simply enough: break out the equipment to mix the dough. For this recipe that’s a plastic mixing vat, a digital scale, and a measuring cup and spoons. I’m just making one loaf today, so a half batch of dough will suffice. I weigh out everything carefully: half a kilo of AP flour (or bread flour if you want better gluten development), 375 ml of lukewarm water (about 95°), 11 g of fine sea salt and a scant 1/8 teaspoon of active dry yeast. That’s it – flour, water, salt and yeast – the essential ingredients of old world artisan bread. The challenge, of course, is to make those few humble ingredients develop the flavors and textures that elicit happy noises from the eater.

Now the fun begins: digging my hands into a wet, sticky agglomeration of the aforesaid ingredients. There’s nothing quite like working with bread dough to tap into the vital creative essence of the human spirit. When we speak of bread being the staff of life, I believe this implicates more than just the nutritive or alimentary aspects of the physical substance.  Man is a creative being by nature, and creating the very stuff needed not just to sustain life but also to enjoy it is an essential and somewhat profound exercise of that nature.  The pursuit of perfection extends to this particular endeavor as well as any other.

I start by mixing the flour and water in the vat by hand and let it sit for about 20 minutes. This is the autolyze step, which begins to break down the sugars in the flour so that the yeast can happily munch away on them later. After the autolyze, in go the yeast and salt, again thoroughly mixed by hand. The salt may add a tiny touch of flavor but is there mainly to keep the yeast from running amok. The trick to getting amazing flavor development from the flour is not very different from a braise: low and slow gets it done. Sure, you can use more yeast and complete your bulk ferment within a few hours, but if instead you start with minimal yeast and allow it to work its magic over a longer amount of time, the finished product will be far superior.  Patience is most assuredly a virtue here.  So, we add some salt to act like a playground monitor and keep the yeast from getting out of control while on its sugar rush.

Now, having bread dough in your kitchen can be a little like having a child – it takes careful attention and handling until it reaches a certain level of development. When all my ingredients are mixed, I need to babysit for a bit. After about 10-15 minutes it’s time to stretch and fold my dough, which helps strengthen it and develop the gluten network (the source of all those pretty, airy holes in the middle of the finished loaf). With wetted hands I get a grip on one end of the lump, stretch it up and fold it over to the other side. I give the lump a quarter turn and repeat until all four sides have been folded. After another 10-15 minutes I’ll do that a second time, and then wait again and give it a third and final fold after that. Snap the lid on the vat, and my babysitting stint is done.  I’m ready to return to my adult beverage consumption, happy in the knowledge that my little yeasty buddies will be doing their little yeasty thing for the next 12 hours or so while I head off to dreamland.

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Maybe there’s something a little off with bread bakers, but probably most of them will tell you there is nothing quite so sexy and gratifying as the sight of a ripe, fully-developed batch of dough, especially if it’s a nice, bubbly poolish pre-ferment or levain. This morning I rolled out of bed, first to the coffee pot and then, steaming mug in hand, I inspected my dough. Happy! It looked full and gassy and beautiful – I almost got a little weepy at the sight. After another hour it was ready to shape – and that’s where I hit a teensy snag. It had been rainy outside and a bit too humid inside, and I realized that I forgot to adjust for that when measuring out my water at the beginning. That means that at the end of my bulk ferment my dough was REALLY sticky and tough to handle. Oh well, no turning back now. Damn the torpedoes, and all that.

I sprinkle a generous coating of flour into my proofing basket. Out of the mixing vat goes the dough onto a floured board (with the help of a handy little plastic scraper), it gets a sprinkle of flour on top, and with well-floured hands I begin shaping it into a rough ball by stretching opposite sides to fold underneath and tucking the seam together. In case you hadn’t picked up on it yet, flour is your anti-sticking agent at this stage of the proceedings. Even so, when the dough is this sticky it can still be a bit challenging – but the job gets done. After I’m done shaping, the dough goes seam side down into the proofing basket, gets one last sprinkle of flour on top, and is loosely covered with a kitchen towel. It will sit on the countertop for the next hour, maybe hour and a quarter, to proof.

I should mention at this point that the method I’m using here is, to my profound delight, one of the most effective home baking techniques I have discovered over several years of experimentation. The secret, as we shall soon see, is to bake in a Dutch oven, which has a unique ability to replicate the moisture conditions of a professional oven and produce both a great oven spring and rich, beautiful crust development. Other options such as a steam bath or spray bottle don’t come close to the results that this method produces. All the credit for the success I have been enjoying goes to Portland master baker Ken Forkish and his excellent book titled “Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast”, which I would heartily commend to any home baker who wants to ramp up their game a bit.

So, while the dough is proofing, my Dutch oven (with the lid on) goes into my non-Dutch oven, which then gets preheated to 450°. When the oven is good and hot, and the proofing is done (the dough will spring back slowly when pushed with a finger), it is time to place the dough CAREFULLY into that rippin’ hot Dutch oven. I bake it with the lid on for 30 minutes, then pop off the lid and continue baking another 10 to 20 minutes until the crust reaches the color I want. I turn it out onto a rack to cool for at least 45 minutes to an hour before cutting into it, and then get to enjoy the crunchy, chewy, gratifying deliciousness that is the end result of my patient and thoroughly therapeutic efforts. My doctor will be glad to know that my blood pressure improves noticeably when I’m in the kitchen, particularly when I’m baking bread (so he can feel free to get off my case about it – just sayin’).

So there you have it – my weekend ritual that goes a long way to prevent me from doing anything that will end up on national news. If you decide to give this a try I would love to hear how it turns out for you. Until then: Eat well, my friends!

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